Jory Des Jardins, Working Woman
May '99

For years, big department stores have paid "mystery shoppers" to pose as customers and report back on how they were treated. Now all sorts of other businesses are using the same tactic to beef up their customer service. In the past five years, the mystery shopping industry has doubled in size, to an estimated $600 million in annual revenue.

Mystery shopping has spread from retail to many service-oriented industries, including hotels, banks, and even doctors' offices. Meanwhile, its services have expanded. Lynne Brighton, senior vice president at Bare Associates, says her firm now offers "intercept interviews" with customers on their way out the door, "internal customer" (or employee) interviews, and comparison reports of a client's competition.

When Kathy Romero, director of surgical services at St. Mary's Health System in Knoxville, Tennessee, wanted to know how patients perceived their hospital experience, she turned to Beverly Gleason and her local firm, Mystery Shoppers. "I knew they expected competent surgeons and up-to-date technology. But I wanted to balance that with personal attention." She's glad she did. Patient feedback helped her figure out some simple improvements: Offer current waiting room periodicals, name tags for staffers, and introductions to the doctors and nurses. "There aren't any tools that capture patient satisfaction like this," says Romero. For $50 to $100 a visit on average, mystery shopping firms provide write-ups based on an assigned shopper's observations. But watch out: The industry is still young and working out its kinks. Mark Michelson, president of the Mystery Shopping Providers Association, points out that plenty of fly-by-night firms give little more than passing or failing grades, as opposed to detailed and useful assessments.

Even if you decide not to use a mystery shopping firm, don't dismiss the concept. Brighton estimates that executives at 9 out of 10 businesses either hire mystery shoppers or ask friends or colleagues to give feedback. They may also visit competitors themselves to compare services. A good compromise, Brighton says, is to employ a mystery shopper quarterly and conduct your own surprise checkups monthly. It may cost a few hundred dollars a year But that's a drop in the bucket, says Brighton, compared with "the cost of losing a customer."